BINGHAM CANYON — Calling it a "defining moment" in Kennecott's history, the nation's second largest copper producer celebrated the reopening of its mine access road Wednesday, nearly seven months after it was wiped out by a massive landslide.
"The mine access ramp is our lifeblood. It is not unfair to compare it to the I-15 corridor right though the Salt Lake Valley," said Matt Lengerich, general manager of the Bingham Canyon Mine. "On this ramp we move supplies, fuel, tires, components, people, as well as our haul trucks, shovels, power to operate the mine. It is critical to our safe and productive operations."
On April 10, a massive slide on a northeast slope created havoc in the main mining area. The slide was large enough to register at a magnitude 2.4 at the University of Utah seismograph station. It knocked out Kennecott's visitors center, buried 13 large hauling trucks, large containers holding 83,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 13,000 gallons of various types of oil, 5,000 gallons of coolant and grease, a steel container full of thousands of pounds of explosives, and it buried two-thirds of the bottom of the pit.
Because of safety equipment that had already been installed to monitor the movement of the cliffs and soil in the mine, company officials were already aware of a pending problem before the slide came down and got all employees out of the area prior to the event.
Wednesday, Kennecott officials took a group of reporters and photographers into the mine to show off the completion of the three-quarter mile long, 150-foot-wide road.
"Our employees moved over 6 million tons (of dirt, gravel and debris), dumped over 2.2 million tons to build the road across the slide mass," Lengerich said. "We've moved over 14 million tons from the top and sides of that (slide) failure in an effort to return this area to a safe configuration for our miners."
More than 1,900 feet of vertical material along the slide face was removed. Ten of the 13 trucks that were buried had been recovered as of Wednesday. Four of them had already been repaired and put back into service.
The opening of the road was completed six months ahead of schedule. The effort to get the mine access road up and running was a 24/7 operation, Lengerich said. At the height of the operation, about 200 employees were designated to work on the project. He said the company used a motto to help motivate everyone to get the road operational again.
"We asked our entire workforce to 'rise to the occasion,' and our entire workforce has done just that," he said.
The push to restore the mine to normal operations as quickly as possible resulted in employees coming up with new ways of conducting business. Truck maintenance workers figured out a way to reduce the time it takes to replace the two front tires on the large haul trucks — each measuring more than 12 feet tall — from more than eight hours to about three. Employees also discovered a new digging pattern that reduced the time it took to load a haul truck by 40 percent, Lengerich said.
What Lengerich called the "centerpiece to the remediation effort" was the purchase of more than 20 remote-controlled pieces of equipment. Employees worked a total of 19,000 hours with that equipment to safely remove dirt and debris from the top and sides of the slide.
Kennecott estimated it would mine about 200,000 tons of copper during the third quarter. Immediately after the slide, company officials had predicted they would be able to mine a little more than half of that. The mine was able to resume operations on a reduced scale 17 days after the slide using a single lane road down to the lower pit that included 13 switchbacks.
"Workers at the Bingham Canyon Mine, the largest man-made excavation in the world, achieved a "tremendous amount of success in short period of time," Lengerich said. But he also noted there is a "tremendous amount of work ahead of us."
An estimated 100 million tons of material remains at the bottom of the pit and needs to be removed. Kennecott estimates it will be fully back to normal operations by 2016.
As for the visitors center, Lengerich said no conclusive plans had been made as of Wednesday.
"Our outreach to the community is really important to us, and the visitors center has been a cornerstone of that for a long period of time," he said. "We're considering all the options that are available to us."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company